WASHINGTON -- The debate over whether money spent on disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Irene should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere has turned into a proxy fight over the role and reach of the federal government. And it's producing its fair share of contortions on Capitol Hill.
Some of the same voices demanding cuts in exchange for relief today balked at applying such fiscal restraints in the past. That list includes the most vocal champion of offsetting the costs of repairing the damage caused by Hurricane Irene, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who recently said that "just like any family would operate when it's struck with disaster," Congress would "have to make sure there are savings elsewhere" to pay for the aftermath of the storm.
Yet a bemused Democratic source notes that in October 2004, Cantor voted against an amendment to an emergency supplemental bill for disaster aid that would have "fully offset" the cost of that supplemental with "a proportional reduction of FY05 discretionary funding" elsewhere. Funding for defense, homeland security, and veterans was exempted from the proposed cuts. But the amendment, introduced by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), would do precisely what Republican leadership is proposing to do now.
“Many, many members have come to the floor to decry deficit spending. It will be interesting to see how many of them truly want to do something about it and support this amendment," Hensarling said in his floor speech defending his amendment. "Mr. Chairman, the true question before us is, who will tighten their belt to pay for this $10.9 billion of hurricane damage? Families, or government? I vote for the government. Opponents of this amendment will argue that it will gut vital government programs. I simply reject that notion.”
The 2004 emergency supplemental was proposed after five hurricanes hit the United States, including Tropical Storm Gaston, which did damage to Cantor's home district of Richmond. But Irene and this summer's east-coast earthquake also hit Virginia, meaning that provincial interests aren't necessarily what changed Cantor's tune.
So what then accounts for the new approach to disaster relief? The size of the national debt, the majority leader's spokesman Brad Dayspring emails.
[T]he national debt at the time was under $8 trillion and was $8.67 trillion when Nancy Pelosi became Speaker, Today the debt stands at $14.625, meaning that while Democrats controlled the purse string, the national debt literally exploded. We are living in different times. Majority Leader Cantor, Whip [Kevin] McCarthy and Chairman [Paul] Ryan wrote an entire book last year about how the previous Republican majority lost its way, particularly on spending issues. That was one of the major reasons the Republican majority became the Republican minority from 2006-2010. House Republicans then ran, and won, an election pledging to be responsible stewards of federal tax dollars.
People and families affected by these disasters will certainly get what they need from their federal government. The goal should always be to find ways to pay for what is needed or to find offsets whenever possible, that is the responsible thing to do. Is the suggestion that Congress should completely ignore the $14 trillion debt and make no effort to try to pay for things? That seems quite extreme. People also expect their government to spend their dollars wisely, and to make efforts to prioritize and save when possible. They aren't and shouldn't be considered mutually exclusive concepts.
Cantor was hardly the only Republican in 2004 to cast aside calls to offset disaster relief with spending cuts. Hensarling's amendment died upon introduction after it was opposed by 127 House Republicans and all but one Democrat. The federal assistance provided to Richmond following Gaston totaled nearly $20 million, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Few complained that that money had increased the national debt. Indeed, as Senate Democrats have pointed out, Congress has approved 33 emergency appropriations for disaster relief since 1989 without offsetting that money with cuts elsewhere.
It should also be noted that while the Federal Emergency Management Agency has insisted that disaster aid won't be hampered by budget battles, administrator Craig Fugate has said that the agency's Federal Disaster Relief Fund has fallen to less than $800 million. The fund faces a potential $5 billion shortfall for the upcoming budget year, before accounting for Irene, which is estimated to have caused billions more in damage.